Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Writing Page 2 of 3


I once thought I was compelled to write. Perhaps that was once true; perhaps it is still. But it is little visible.

I write a lot, of course. I tell seminary students I encounter who are grousing over their next paper that as a pastor my minimum writing load is one 4000+ word essay each week, due every Sunday at 11:00 AM. And it can never be turned in late. So, I do write a lot. But there is a lot that I’d like to write that I never write, and the list keeps growing. I guess I’m at most a compulsive list maker.

I’ve tried to explain in these pages the obstacles I face so there is no need to revisit those tedious considerations. Just know I’m still here, and I’m still planning to make a return.

What’s lacking is not the compulsion, but the discipline, a lack with which most writers are more than familiar. It’s necessity is often noted. Perhaps John Updike is speaking most clearly to my situation:

I have never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again. (John Updike)


Bonhoeffer. Again.

A friend messaged me the other day wondering if I was aware of a new Bonhoeffer bio about to be released. StrangeGlory

I was not, and yet the news made me hopeful. As any who have glanced at these pages know, I have felt that Eric Metaxas’ bio is embraced by so many not because of the quality of the writing, which I find wanting, but because of the power of its subject. I would love to see a modern critical biography of Bonhoeffer that tells his story well. (See my review here and follow-up comments here.)

I was given hope about this biography by Charles Marsh by the fact that at least the cover has a picture of Bonhoeffer smiling. I know, don’t judge a book by its cover. But the common pictures of Bonhoeffer are so dour, including the one on the cover of the Metaxas bio, that they make me NOT want to get to know the guy.

To see whether I’d want to pre-order the new book, I searched for some reviews. In so doing I was reminded of how much a minority I am in my evaluation of Metaxas style. The Kirkus review (which is anonymous) concludes with this line:

Though Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer (2010) is a more sensitive and well-written account of the subject’s life, Marsh also serves readers well.

There is much in the Metaxas biography that makes it a useful resource. But I continue to be mystified by those who say it is ‘well-written’. Well researched? Check. Well documented? Check. Thorough? Check. Successfully reclaims Bonhoeffer for a more orthodox Christianity? Check. Well written? No.

The publisher sponsored blurbs on Amazon praise the writing of the Marsh bio. But so do many who praised the one by Metaxas. So, I’m jaded.

The big question for me will be this: do I have sufficient interest in Bonhoeffer to slog through another 500 page bio on his life? At present, no. Knowing there is a well told story between the covers of this book could push me to read it. I wait to hear from others if this is so.

In the meantime, maybe I should just read, well, Bonhoeffer. Now there’s an idea.

The Stories of the Boys of Summer

To my knowledge, I first encountered the writing of sports writer Joe Posnanski when he wrote about the legendary game that in Tampa Bay Rays’ fan-lore is known as ‘Game 162’, the unforgettable night that propelled the Rays into the 2011 postseason. About that night, and about that game, Posnanski wrote a spectacular piece in which he contended that baseball is, indeed, boring.

“I never argue with people who say that baseball is boring, because baseball is boring. And then, suddenly, it isn’t. And that’s what makes it great.”

Evan longoria usp2

As unbelievable as that night was – and I won’t bore you in trying to recount it for you – Posnanski’s writing about it has stuck with me quite as much as the events of which he wrote. To read him is to connect with the history and soul of the game, and that is a gift.

I’ve read occasional things by him over the past couple of years. There is something about baseball that invites thoughtful essays, and Posnanski delivers. This past baseball postseason, Posnanski had some insightful things to say about the over-use and mis-use of baseball statistics in television broadcasts. Stats are a part of the game of baseball, but baseball is bigger than stats. He wants the announcers to tell more of the stories connected with those stats. I found myself resonating with his critique.

Since then, Posnanski has engaged in a project in which he is telling many of those stories that need telling. He has created a list, an obviously idiosyncratic list, as these things always will be, of the 100 best baseball players of all time. What could be academic and encyclopedic is becoming quite the clinic in how to tell a story well. I’ve not been able to read many, as he releases a couple of essays each day and I have other things filling my time. But if the quality remains as it has been, I might find it harder to pull myself away.

I suppose one who is not a fan might not find all the stories compelling. But surely one can read with appreciation about #81 on his list (Joe Jackson), a man who never liked his nickname (‘Shoeless’), and who found money such a great temptation that it led to his permanent banishment from baseball. Or one can enjoy reading about how ‘scrappy and resourceful’ flirted with the edges of ‘honest and legal’ in the career of #83 (Gaylord Perry). Good stuff, this. Check it out.

But first read his essay on Game 162.

But then, every now and again, something happens. Something memorable. Something magnificent. Something staggering. Your child wins the race. Your team rallies in the ninth. You get pulled over for speeding. And in that moment — awesome or lousy — you are living something that you will never forget, something that jumps out of the toneless roar of day-to-day life.

Life Goes On; Blogging Struggles to Keep Up

The dates on the page don’t lie.

The last post here was posted over two months ago. Were Somber and Dull a pet, I should be arrested for neglect if not abuse. What followers I might once have had have no doubt determined that I am sick, dying, or dead, and have drifted off to more verdant fields. I would not blame them.

What has happened?

The life of a pastor is an erratic and unpredictable thing. Rare is the day that plays out as scheduled. And the life of a father of six can be disorderly, even though only one still requires any direct oversight. Life has pressed hard against my order-loving soul, and this blog has been a victim.

It has not helped that we have had to move. Quickly.

Shortly after leasing our house in 2010, the landlord was foreclosed upon. The house, which had been in limbo since, was sold to Fannie Mae on September 3 of this year. That we had to move out by October 6 we discovered September 23rd.

We have done what we have had to do, and there has been little margin time for other things. Now that I few margins are returning, I hope at least to restore this blog to some regularity.

I hope to restore it for the sake of the discipline of writing. A point frequently made, which I first heard from a crusty old college professor, is that those who want to write need to write. Daily. All the time. With discipline. I have lost, or at least misplaced, that discipline. I want it back.

Oddly, and humbly, I confess that there are those who have told me that they have found this blog (occasionally, at least) helpful. I do apologize to you for my silence. To some degree I see this as an extension of my ministry which I’ve neglected so that in a sense I see that I have neglected you.

I may not have much to say, but I have much to write (there is a difference). If you are among those who find what I write helpful, entertaining, or even diversionary, then pray with me that my discipline might stick.

I’ve learned long ago to make few promises. But my intentions are good. We’ll see where this leads.

Metaxas vs. Me: A Reprise

I give up.

From all that I can gather, Eric Metaxas is a nice guy, a smart guy, a funny guy, and generally, a good writer.

But I also am gathering that my wife and I are the ONLY people on planet Earth and, for all we know, in the galaxy not to fall head over heels over his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I went public with my issues with the work just over a year ago: Bonhoeffer vs. Metaxas. Since then, I’ve yet to find someone who agrees with me.

A recent dinner guest when the subject turned to books mentioned being deeply impressed with the book. He was unaware of my take. A good and wise and discerning friend in Bradenton recently told me that he loved the book. He WAS aware of my view. Ouch.

But that’s not all.

The religious news service recently ran an article about Eric Metaxas being something of the ‘new’ Charles Colson. I’m not sure what a new Charles Colson is, but the article mentioned George W. Bush having read the bio and implied that Barack Obama would do the same.

The NY Times then recently asked National Institutes of Health director and human genome decoder and all around really smart guy Francis Collins about the best books he’s ever read. Of all the books in all the world, he has to mention this one:

I was deeply moved by Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and loved “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” by Walter Isaacson.

Sigh. The irony is that I read the Einstein biography immediately after the Bonhoeffer, and it was so much superior in my mind that the only way to compare them was by contrast. But how do I take issue with presidents and preeminent geneticists?

My opinion has not changed. A biography should tell a story well. Bonhoeffer’s story is great, but this is not a good telling of it. I continue to believe that readers are so drawn to Bonhoeffer that they fail to see the faults of the book itself. So, I guess I haven’t given up after all. I’m just losing.

Wasup Craigslist

One aspect of Mark Twain’s genius was the keen ear by which he was able to duplicate the sounds and rhythms of a variety of dialects. Certainly this too was one of the remarkable charms of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

Since I might be interested in purchasing a good quality bike rack for our car, I receive notifications from Craigslist when one is listed. That led to the following. I’m not really sure what to make of it. It’s real (I couldn’t make this up). It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s worth trying to read out loud. And if this is fiction, there is another master out there waiting for his break.

Wasup craigslist i got a clean 93 honda civic eg hatch this car is like a 9/10 has a super fresh jdm b20 with a bout 85k on it has a b16 tranny new axels new distributer fresh oilchange motor is mint its so fresh yu can eat of it! Has a chipped computer with 2step luanch control on a basemap has a check engine shift light. Paint is in good condition but not perfect suspesion i have ground control coilovers with tockicko blue struts its on red gt3 with new tires has front lip hids city lights amber corners i have foglights not installed will come with buyer also has yakima bike rack has rpm tach short shifter headers no oil leaks or kicks or ticks on the motor the ca is super clean and talks for it self im giving it cheap bcuzbi need the money i am asking 4300 or better offer willing to work aomething out the less yu offer the more i take off also chas a system has no ps or ac also has a momo champion stering wheel with nrg quick release also has front and rear red towhooks intirior is in very good condition also car is worth more then wat i am asking hmu txt me or call me

If any would like to submit a translation, post it in the comments. I think it’s English, however….

1776. 4th Down. 3 Seconds on the Clock. Washington Drops Back to Pass…

On Saturday morning I had no schedule. The family was away and I was alone. I sat on the couch intending to drink a cup of coffee and read for a bit. I drank a whole pot and read a lot. I read to the end, in fact, of David McCullough’s 1776. If I may indulge a sports analogy, I read like I was experiencing an 80 yard touchdown drive during the final 38 seconds of a football game. Though I knew how the game, I mean book, would end, I read away with tension thick.

This is the fourth of McCullough’s books I’ve read. That it is not his best is irrelevant, and only speaks to the quality of his other work.

McCullough’s intention is to take the reader through the first full year of the American Revolution from the military point of view. Congress in this book plays a minimal role as the focus falls upon George Washington’s desperate attempt to hold together an army of untrained and undisciplined men come together with disparate motivates and conflicting regional loyalties. That the army survived to see 1777 is nothing short of miraculous.

Washington’s failures and blind spots and weaknesses are on display. But also one sees his patience, his political wisdom, and his intuitive leadership skill. Much the same is seen in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s equally good Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Both Washington and Lincoln lead men of varying abilities and loyalties through a time of crisis. There are lessons to be learned here.

Leadership is not the only skill to be learned from these pages, however. I am captivated by the story-telling skill of McCullough, Goodwin, and others I’ve read recently, such as Walter Isaacson and Laura Hillenbrand. It would be worthwhile to return to each book and assess how they accomplish what they do.

Sure, I’d like to lead like Washington or Lincoln; but even more, I’d love to write like McCullough, Goodwin, Isaacson, or Hillenbrand.

Advice on Preaching

This collected wisdom on writing by famous authors is applicable, with minor adjustments, to all communication, including preaching. Enjoy!



Follow the link and read them all.

H/T http://bookriot.com

Bonhoeffer vs. Metaxas

Eric Metaxas’ massive 2010 biography of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy) was received so favorably that Christianity Today could report that six months after its release it had sold 160,000 hardcover copies, even though published by the American evangelical publisher Thomas Nelson. (It is still selling at a volume that keeps it in the top 1000 of all books sold on Amazon.com.)

Evangelical reviewers were effusive in their praise. A reviewer in Books and Culture introduces it as a “riveting biography” which holds “…the reader’s attention from the first page to the last….” A Kings College lecturer praises Metaxas in the pages of the Wall Street Journal for his “…passion and theological sophistication….”

But it was the recommendation of friends with comments like this contained in an email: “if you haven’t picked up Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer book yet, its stinkin awesome”  that  had the greatest impact on my choice to read the book.

My only agreement with the reviewers, however, is that the book is indeed massive (550 pages). Beyond that, our opinions diverge.

Bonhoeffer indeed was a fascinating person, as the subtitle suggests. He was a man of deep and firm conviction whose devotion to his God led him to take action that both troubles and inspires us. He was a German Christian pastor and theologian who early on saw the evil in Hitler’s rise to power. He struggled deeply with how a Christian and the church should respond to the evils which we in retrospect can see so clearly. He chose a path of opposition and defiance. For his association with a plot which led to an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler, he was executed at age 39 just two weeks before the war was over.

We respond to such a life. He was a faithful Christian, a devoted son, a passionate author, a humble servant of those in need. At his death he was engaged to be married to a young woman whom he had hardly had the chance to embrace, so thoroughly had the war separated them. To read of such a life is to reflect on our own and the choices we think we would have made, and the ones we do in our own point in history. Bonhoeffer challenges us all.

It is not just his life that matters here. It is the theology that motivated that life. Metaxas has stirred up a hornets’ nest of controversy regarding Bonhoeffer’s theology. “Eric Metaxas gives us a Bonhoeffer who looks a lot like an American evangelical…,” says one reviewer. Non-evangelicals tend to think that Metaxas is hijacking Bonhoeffer’s legacy and wresting him from the theologically liberal camp where they think he belongs. And so the battle rages.

Though Metaxas makes a good case I will let the theological battles be fought elsewhere. Whether he was or was not ‘evangelical’ is of little consequence to me. What matters to me is that in the reviewers’ zeal to address Bonhoeffer’s courage or to praise the book for its claiming him for ‘our side’, they overlook the fact that the book could have been so much better. As it is, the writing detracts terribly from the content. It seems to me that the book has received attention because of the interest of its subject and despite its stylistic and presentation flaws.

Metaxas’ slavish devotion to a chronological telling of Bonhoeffer’s life strips the vigor from the story. He strings together paragraph after paragraph, each of which is tied to the prior by chronological markers. Random references to places he stopped on his travels and gifts he bought for Christmas may be true enough in the chronology of his life, but such detail adds nothing to the story.

Further this bondage to chronology can kill the narrative drama. The last years of Bonhoeffer’s life were marked with plots and espionage and secrecy and threat, the stuff of novels. When the final attempt on Hitler’s life fails, Bonhoeffer is imprisoned and eventually killed. It could have been a grippingly told tale. However, because Bonhoeffer writes some things while in prison which are key in the theological controversies, Metaxas interrupts the narrative to engage the debate concerning these theological matters. Far better to tell the story of a man’s life through a series of overlapping thematic panels of content. A chapter on the theological controversies could tell one story while traversing a wide chronology, and then the story of the political intrigue could be told without interruption. I think only someone  working on a doctorate in theology would feel that the book holds “the reader’s attention from the first page to the last…” It doesn’t.

Secondly, this tends in the distinct direction of hagiography (well critiqued here). Whenever we tell the story of someone we hold in high regard and with deep affection, it is hard to be objective about the subject matter. But we must be objective, and we must report the faults in a subject as well as his virtues. Did Bonhoeffer have faults at all? All men do, but his certainly are obscured if not completely omitted in this book.

Thirdly, I expect a biographer to tell the story of his subject by distilling the events and works of his life into a coherent narrative. Though Metaxas really aims at this, his effort is stymied by his over-dependence upon quoted material. Page after page is filled with quotes from letters and sermons and articles. One longish chapter has, by my estimate, 1260 total lines of text of which 590 (nearly half) are quotes. In fact, the biography ends with the entire manuscript of the sermon preached at his memorial service. Much of this is no doubt material worth preserving. But preserve it in an appendix. As it is, it bogs down the story by requiring the reader to do the distilling that is the biographer’s job.

Finally, Metaxas needs to ‘kill his darlings‘. Metaxas is so fond of clever turns of phrase that one loses sight of the seriousness of the story in the triteness of his language. Well turned phrases can enhance a story, but poorly chosen clevernesses detract. And they detract in abundance here.

At one point he says that Hitler “…would now with a flourish produce from his hindquarters a withered olive branch and wave it before a goggling world.” (356) From his hindquarters?

In speaking of the hopes attached to a plan to explode a bomb in a plane in which Hitler was flying, he walks through the events which “…would explode the bomb and then: curtains.” (427)

He tells of a church publication that had “…gone over to the dark side…” (325) Of the deal that Neville Chamberlain made with Hitler, “…it was ‘peace’ on the house, with a side order of Czechoslovakia.” (314)

Writing is hard. And harder still is it to write and then receive the insight of others as to how to improve one’s writing. And still harder is to be forced into making changes based upon the insight of another when that other is a clearheaded editor. I don’t blame Metaxas for the faults listed above. I blame his editor. A good editor would have forced him to address the stylistic weaknesses and would have reduced this from massive to manageable. A good editor, that is, could have made this into a book that was indeed “stinkin’ awesome”.

Dear Diary…

I mused a few weeks ago about the lost art of the diary.

Apparently, according to the New York Times, I’m not the only one musing along those lines. The Morgan Library and Museum in New York has apparently brought together an exhibit focusing on the art of keeping a diary. Oh, to be able to visit. If the previous post sparked any interest at all, this article will be worth the read.

As I did, the author here sees the relationship between the diary and things such as Facebook and Twitter.

Our own era, of course, has turned spontaneous journalizing into something of a fetish, as 140-character tweets supposedly spring spontaneously from the thumbs of celebrities; scores of electronic walls sprout on which “friends” post tirelessly about their socially networked activities; and blogs are tossed into the electronic ether like rolled-up notes floating in virtual bottles. And though far less distinguished, the contemporary mix of self-invention, self-promotion and self-revelation is probably not that different from what is on display here.

But the most interesting observation she makes is on whether written self-reflection is true. Some diarists clearly wrote for history, and tidied up their lives to make themselves look good. Others wrote for themselves, and might have been excessively hard on themselves. For honesty, she commends the author of the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” John Newton:

An enormous volume by the British slaveholder John Newton recounts his spiritual conversion (which led to the composition of the hymn “Amazing Grace” and to his later opposition to slavery), but also his “repeated backslidings”: “I have been reading what I have recorded of my experience in the last year — a strange vanity. I find myself condemned in every page.”

My own journal keeping occurs early, early in the morning, when sometimes my soul is as dark as the sky is outside. It’s not necessarily an accurate description of my whole view of life!

Anyway, fascinating reading.

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